Professor Febbraio addresses prestigious GSK award and future of medical research

Health Industry Hub | December 14, 2020 |

Medical News: An Australian scientist leading the development of a ground-breaking potential treatment for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and muscle mass loss, wins the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence (ARE), in addition to having recently being awarded the 2020 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Scientific Research and the Society of Endocrinology International Medal.

In an interview with Health Industry Hub, Professor Mark Febbraio, Head of the Cellular and Molecular Metabolism Laboratory, Drug Discovery Program at Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Monash University, revealed the current research funding issues in Australia, the impact of the GSK award on his novel research, and the essentials for future medical research success in Australia.

Health Industry Hub: Clinical trials play a significant role in providing patient access to novel and potentially life-saving treatments. How have clinical trials been impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Professor Mark Febbraio: There are two issues to consider. One is the practicality of patient recruitment for clinical studies. Being in lockdown has had an impact on the ability to conduct clinical trials. But I think we will recover from that fairly quickly.

The other point, which is concerning for many scientists, is the lack of peer review in the distribution of clinical trials funding from the MRFF (Medical Research Futures Fund).

The decisions regarding all projects and programs that are awarded MRFF funding should require an independent peer or expert review, consistent with the processes already established through the NHMRC. This does not seem to reflect the current process.

Throughout the pandemic significant funding was allocated to COVID-19 clinical trials. The issue is that we did not have sufficient patient numbers to conduct the trials. At the absolute peak of Victoria’s second wave, the maximum number of patients nationally that were in ICU were 47. Yet, many of these COVID-19 trials were aimed at the severe patient cases. In reviewing the numbers, we did not have adequate power to run a single clinical trial if every hospital in the country was engaged.

Millions of taxpayer dollars spent on dozens of Australian COVID-19 clinical trials largely failed to produce any new scientific knowledge.

The re-allocated funding is therefore having an impact in other areas of research such as oncology, mental health, diabetes and metabolism, and immunology.

Additionally, the NHMRC funding is decreasing and the number of successful applications for funding is below 10%.

I worry for the next generation of scientists including my daughter who is a budding scientist.

While we do not have sufficient funding for research in Australia, the process of distributing the research dollars is not optimal. It needs to be a fairer and more transparent process.

Health Industry Hub: How will the GSK Award for Research Excellence assist your research project?

Professor Mark Febbraio: We have engineered IC7Fc, a cytokine for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, that selectively activates beneficial metabolic pathways systemically and in metabolic tissues without promoting an inflammatory response.

IC7Fc is the first drug that may directly improve muscle function and also have multiple beneficial metabolic effects in people with type 2 diabetes. This novel cytokine was created on the basis of a deep understanding of immunometabolism, and it may be therapeutically beneficial in promoting body-weight loss and improving exercise capacity in people with type 2 diabetes.

This means our research is moving toward taking this new class of drugs into the clinic to deliver the next generation of treatment options.

The GSK award is incredibly important because it is allowing us to further develop these molecules – to develop second and third generation variants and increase potency. We will then be able to refresh our patents and engage with Pharma companies to take this into clinical trials.

GSK’s recognition of scientific excellence with an award like this is wonderful and I feel really lucky to have won.

I want to acknowledge my colleagues Dr Tamara Allen, Dr Maria Findeisen (joint co-first authors of the paper) and Ms Casey Egan (lab manager) who make all the research possible. I can have the ideas but I don’t wear a lab coat. They are the real driving force behind the influence in the lab.

Health Industry Hub: COVID-19 has taught the healthcare industry many lessons, including opportunities for growth. In your opinion, what are some of the key learnings? Which key stakeholders need to come together to ensure Australia’s medical research community thrives in the future?

Professor Mark Febbraio: The first learning is that we needed a strong pandemic response team and I do not think we acted very quickly despite knowing that this was a possibility.

The second learning is an opportunity for the wider community to embrace science because science is what is getting us out of this. The SARS-CoV-2 was sequenced only in February 2020 and by December 2020 we have three efficacious vaccines. That is absolutely incredible. In fact, two of the vaccines use unprecedented technology.

Governments, philanthropists and industry must recognise that if you invest in science, technology and research, the investment is going to reap dividends.

To help Australia’s medical research community thrives in the future, the government has the potential to invest more money in medical research and initiate a transparent process for awarding the funding.

The leaders in the research field and medical research institutes have to meet and discuss the issues surrounding the funding of medical research in this country and the changes required to strengthen and support this sector.

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